With 30 seconds remaining in the final match, and France poised to claim its second World Cup title, I grabbed my phone and began typing. My mind raced back to 1998, when the Algerian French football icon Zinedine Zidane led Les Bleus to its first title, as I watched Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and the remainder of the French team on the cusp of claiming its second in 2018. Two decades stood in between these two historic moments, which marked the only times France lifted up a World Cup trophy.
The 20 years in between witnessed enormous political and racial volatility in France: the intensification and institutionalization of Islamophobia, most vividly illustrated by the 2004 headscarf ban; explosive race riots in overpopulated and under-resourced Black and Brown ghettoes outside of Paris and beyond; former French president Nicolas Sarkozy declaring that “racial intermixing is the challenge of the 21st century”; the emergence of a Black Lives Matter offshoot movement in France; and the prolific reemergence of the white supremacist National Front party, which regularly ups the Donald Trump ante and casts immigrants, even those with citizenship, as menacing outsiders that French citizens must be “protected” from.
I thought about all of this, and more, as a supremely Black and Brown French team ran up the soccer pitch seconds before the final whistle. And I was hardly alone. I knew that images of young Black and Arab, many who resembled Mbappe or star forward Nabil Kekir, rioting against police violence scrolled across the mind of viewers near and far. I knew that the harrowing stories of African immigrants—who came from the same region of the continent as the dabbing midfield dynamo Paul Pogba or his all-world partner N’golo Kante—were denied when they arrived or, worse, dead before they reached it, and washed ashore. I knew that French Muslim women that wear the headscarf—who could very well be the sisters of Muslim players like the young French (and Barcelona) phenom Ousmane Dembele, or the mother of stalwart left back Benjamin Mendy—were legally prohibited from expressing their religion outwardly in the public sphere.
I knew all of this, which unfolded in the 20 years in between France’s two champions (and still today) as I typed a message on Twitter as the final seconds ticked off. So I wrote, as a French soccer supporter and a vehement critic of its domestic racial and religious policies:
Congratulations on winning the #WorldCup.
80% of your team is African, cut out the racism and xenophobia.
50% of your team are Muslims, cut out the Islamophobia.
Africans and Muslims delivered you a second World Cup, now deliver them justice.
The 203-character tweet, in a matter of seconds, went ballistic. Saying that it went “viral” is an understatement. Within one minute off posting, it was retweeted more than a thousand times. A half an hour later, it approached nearly 50,000 retweets.
As of today, the tweet has been retweeted 215,000 times and liked more than half-a-million times, driven by it being amplified by celebrities like Diddy and Drake collaborator Boi-1da, social justice juggernauts like Shaun King and Linda Sarsour and, most importantly, World Cup viewers in France, the United States, and beyond and in between. Perfectly timed and trenchantly framed, the tweet set the course for a discussion of how a French team, dominated by Black and Brown, Muslim and immigrant players, came to represent far more than just a European nation, but a continent, a cause, and inter-connected social justice struggles.
Several days after the five (actual) African nations were eliminated from the World Cup, I wrote for ESPN’S Undefeated that France can be viewed as “the last African team standing in the 2018 World Cup. Beyond the teenage phenom Mbappe, France boasts a milieu of players of African ancestry who could very well make up a Pan-African all-star team. Twelve of the 23 French players called up to represent France in Russia boast African ancestry rooted in nine nations across the continent.” Throngs of people embraced my naming of France as an “African team,” particularly on social media, sharing posts about the continental origins of the African footballers and videos of them dancing to Afro-beat.
Others, like Washington Post‘s Karen Attiah, echoed my political analysis, but wrote that, “It feels bittersweet at best to call the French team African, in a time when France, which has a political obsession with colorblindness, just moved to replace the word ‘race’ with ‘sex’ in its constitution, thereby making it harder for anti-racism activists to fight systemic racism and prejudice.” Neither Attiah or I were right or wrong—whether one dubs France an “African team” is as subjective as it is symbolic. But what was, and still is, indisputable is that Africa, Blackness, Islam and immigrant identity were just as prominent on the French World Cup team as the Gallic rooster—the national symbol and logo worn on chest of every player.
Also prominent were the perils and policing, punishment and persecution faced by the Black and Brown Frenchmen and women, youth and teenagers that shared the melanin of Mpabbe, or prostrated to worship Allah like Pogba. As these two world-class soccer stars crossed their arms in victory before the world and then, minutes later, lifted the golden trophy over their heads as the Russian rain poured down, the juxtaposition of triumph and struggle stood firmly alongside them. Viewers knowledgeable of racial and political tumult in modern France, and especially those that experience it, knew that during the very moments the French team celebrated its second World Cup title, that struggle could not be separated from soccer.
That is why my tweet rang globally, was retweeted prolifically, and resonated deeply. Truth hurts, and it also travels to both supporters and detractors. Louis Sarkozy, the son of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and a proponent of the idea that the racial or religious identity of the French players is “irrelevant,” tweeted, “You’re over here talking about their parents or their ‘heritage’… When can we focus on them as individuals?!” Sarkozy supports the French government’s commitment to “colorblindness” or, stated simply, that national identity trumps one’s race, religion, and heritage. For Sarkozy, and those that tow the distinctly French version of “All Lives Matter,” the fact that scores of the players were Black, African and Muslim was immaterial—they were all, only and plainly, French. And for others, it was reminiscent of the hateful cries made against blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the NFL athletes that protested by taking a knee, that “soccer and sport have no place for politics.”
However, the conversations and debates the French soccer team spurred in the aftermath of winning their second title, on social media and on the ground, proved otherwise. The notion that sports are not political, especially in relation to the at-times transformative and frequently turbulent French soccer team, is an absolute myth. The 1998 championship side, led by an Algerian French icon with piercing eyes and even more piercing passes, and this 2018 team, dominated by Black and Brown players wearing French Bleu, provide indisputable evidence otherwise. Both French championship teams shook up the world. And inspired everybody within it to pay closer attention to the injustices unfolding in France, far beyond the World Cup field of dreams, where the harsh realities of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia systematically taint the national trilogy of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to soccer,” wrote Albert Camus, the iconic French Philosopher, and through France soccer I learned about the obligation to use sport as a platform for social justice back in 1998, which came full circle with a tweet heard ’round the world in 2018.
Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor, writer, and author of ‘American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.’